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Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment

Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment

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Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment

4/5 (60 valutazioni)
416 pagine
7 ore
Aug 8, 2017


From one of America’s most brilliant writers, a New York Times bestselling journey through psychology, philosophy, and lots of meditation to show how Buddhism holds the key to moral clarity and enduring happiness.

At the heart of Buddhism is a simple claim: The reason we suffer—and the reason we make other people suffer—is that we don’t see the world clearly. At the heart of Buddhist meditative practice is a radical promise: We can learn to see the world, including ourselves, more clearly and so gain a deep and morally valid happiness.

In this “sublime” (The New Yorker), pathbreaking book, Robert Wright shows how taking this promise seriously can change your life—how it can loosen the grip of anxiety, regret, and hatred, and how it can deepen your appreciation of beauty and of other people. He also shows why this transformation works, drawing on the latest in neuroscience and psychology, and armed with an acute understanding of human evolution.

This book is the culmination of a personal journey that began with Wright’s landmark book on evolutionary psychology, The Moral Animal, and deepened as he immersed himself in meditative practice and conversed with some of the world’s most skilled meditators. The result is a story that is “provocative, informative and...deeply rewarding” (The New York Times Book Review), and as entertaining as it is illuminating. Written with the wit, clarity, and grace for which Wright is famous, Why Buddhism Is True lays the foundation for a spiritual life in a secular age and shows how, in a time of technological distraction and social division, we can save ourselves from ourselves, both as individuals and as a species.
Aug 8, 2017

Informazioni sull'autore

Robert Wright, PhD, is professor of history at Trent University Durham in Oshawa, Ontario. He is the author of the national bestsellers Three Nights in Havana and The Night Canada Stood Still, both of which won the Canadian Authors Association’s Lela Common Award for Canadian History, and Our Man in Tehran, which was made into an award-winning documentary film. He lives in Toronto with his wife and children.

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Why Buddhism is True - Robert Wright




A Note to Readers

1. Taking the Red Pill

2. Paradoxes of Meditation

3. When Are Feelings Illusions?

4. Bliss, Ecstasy, and More Important Reasons to Meditate

5. The Alleged Nonexistence of Your Self

6. Your CEO Is MIA

7. The Mental Modules That Run Your Life

8. How Thoughts Think Themselves

9. Self Control

10. Encounters with the Formless

11. The Upside of Emptiness

12. A Weedless World

13. Like, Wow, Everything Is One (at Most)

14. Nirvana in a Nutshell

15. Is Enlightenment Enlightening?

16. Meditation and the Unseen Order

Appendix: A List of Buddhist Truths

A Note on Terminology


About the Author




For Terri, Mike, Becki, and Linda

A Dream Play by August Strindberg, as adapted by Caryl Churchill

A Note to Readers

Any book with a title like Why Buddhism Is True should have some careful qualification somewhere along the way. We might as well get that over with:

1. I’m not talking about the supernatural or more exotically metaphysical parts of Buddhism—reincarnation, for example—but rather about the naturalistic parts: ideas that fall squarely within modern psychology and philosophy. That said, I am talking about some of Buddhism’s more extraordinary, even radical, claims—claims that, if you take them seriously, could revolutionize your view of yourself and of the world. This book is intended to get you to take these claims seriously.

2. I’m of course aware that there’s no one Buddhism, but rather various Buddhist traditions, which differ on all kinds of doctrines. But this book focuses on a kind of common core—fundamental ideas that are found across the major Buddhist traditions, even if they get different degrees of emphasis, and may assume somewhat different form, in different traditions.

3. I’m not getting into super-fine-grained parts of Buddhist psychology and philosophy. For example, the Abhidhamma Pitaka, a collection of early Buddhist texts, asserts that there are eighty-nine kinds of consciousness, twelve of which are unwholesome. You may be relieved to hear that this book will spend no time trying to evaluate that claim.

4. I realize that true is a tricky word, and asserting the truth of anything, certainly including deep ideas in philosophy or psychology, is a tricky business. In fact, one big lesson from Buddhism is to be suspicious of the intuition that your ordinary way of perceiving the world brings you the truth about it. Some early Buddhist writings go so far as to raise doubts about whether such a thing as truth ultimately exists. On the other hand, the Buddha, in his most famous sermon, lays out what are commonly called The Four Noble Truths, so it’s not as if the word true has no place in discussions of Buddhist thought. In any event, I’ll try to proceed with appropriate humility and nuance as I make my argument that Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important.

5. Asserting the validity of core Buddhist ideas doesn’t necessarily say anything, one way or the other, about other spiritual or philosophical traditions. There will sometimes be logical tension between a Buddhist idea and an idea in another tradition, but often there won’t be. The Dalai Lama has said, Don’t try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a better Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.

—Robert Wright


Taking the Red Pill

At the risk of overdramatizing the human condition: Have you ever seen the movie The Matrix?

It’s about a guy named Neo (played by Keanu Reeves), who discovers that he’s been inhabiting a dream world. The life he thought he was living is actually an elaborate hallucination. He’s having that hallucination while, unbeknownst to him, his actual physical body is inside a gooey, coffin-size pod—one among many pods, rows and rows of pods, each pod containing a human being absorbed in a dream. These people have been put in their pods by robot overlords and given dream lives as pacifiers.

The choice faced by Neo—to keep living a delusion or wake up to reality—is famously captured in the movie’s red pill scene. Neo has been contacted by rebels who have entered his dream (or, strictly speaking, whose avatars have entered his dream). Their leader, Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne), explains the situation to Neo: You are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch—a prison for your mind. The prison is called the Matrix, but there’s no way to explain to Neo what the Matrix ultimately is. The only way to get the whole picture, says Morpheus, is to see it for yourself. He offers Neo two pills, a red one and a blue one. Neo can take the blue pill and return to his dream world, or take the red pill and break through the shroud of delusion. Neo chooses the red pill.

That’s a pretty stark choice: a life of delusion and bondage or a life of insight and freedom. In fact, it’s a choice so dramatic that you’d think a Hollywood movie is exactly where it belongs—that the choices we really get to make about how to live our lives are less momentous than this, more pedestrian. Yet when that movie came out, a number of people saw it as mirroring a choice they had actually made.

The people I’m thinking about are what you might call Western Buddhists, people in the United States and other Western countries who, for the most part, didn’t grow up Buddhist but at some point adopted Buddhism. At least they adopted a version of Buddhism, a version that had been stripped of some supernatural elements typically found in Asian Buddhism, such as belief in reincarnation and in various deities. This Western Buddhism centers on a part of Buddhist practice that in Asia is more common among monks than among laypeople: meditation, along with immersion in Buddhist philosophy. (Two of the most common Western conceptions of Buddhism—that it’s atheistic and that it revolves around meditation—are wrong; most Asian Buddhists do believe in gods, though not an omnipotent creator God, and don’t meditate.)

These Western Buddhists, long before they watched The Matrix, had become convinced that the world as they had once seen it was a kind of illusion—not an out-and-out hallucination but a seriously warped picture of reality that in turn warped their approach to life, with bad consequences for them and the people around them. Now they felt that, thanks to meditation and Buddhist philosophy, they were seeing things more clearly. Among these people, The Matrix seemed an apt allegory of the transition they’d undergone, and so became known as a dharma movie. The word dharma has several meanings, including the Buddha’s teachings and the path that Buddhists should tread in response to those teachings. In the wake of The Matrix, a new shorthand for I follow the dharma came into currency: I took the red pill.

I saw The Matrix in 1999, right after it came out, and some months later I learned that I had a kind of connection to it. The movie’s directors, the Wachowski siblings, had given Keanu Reeves three books to read in preparation for playing Neo. One of them was a book I had written a few years earlier, The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life.

I’m not sure what kind of link the directors saw between my book and The Matrix. But I know what kind of link I see. Evolutionary psychology can be described in various ways, and here’s one way I had described it in my book: It is the study of how the human brain was designed—by natural selection—to mislead us, even enslave us.

Don’t get me wrong: natural selection has its virtues, and I’d rather be created by it than not be created at all—which, so far as I can tell, are the two options this universe offers. Being a product of evolution is by no means entirely a story of enslavement and delusion. Our evolved brains empower us in many ways, and they often bless us with a basically accurate view of reality.

Still, ultimately, natural selection cares about only one thing (or, I should say, cares—in quotes—about only one thing, since natural selection is just a blind process, not a conscious designer). And that one thing is getting genes into the next generation. Genetically based traits that in the past contributed to genetic proliferation have flourished, while traits that didn’t have fallen by the wayside. And the traits that have survived this test include mental traits—structures and algorithms that are built into the brain and shape our everyday experience. So if you ask the question What kinds of perceptions and thoughts and feelings guide us through life each day? the answer, at the most basic level, isn’t The kinds of thoughts and feelings and perceptions that give us an accurate picture of reality. No, at the most basic level the answer is The kinds of thoughts and feelings and perceptions that helped our ancestors get genes into the next generation. Whether those thoughts and feelings and perceptions give us a true view of reality is, strictly speaking, beside the point. As a result, they sometimes don’t. Our brains are designed to, among other things, delude us.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Some of my happiest moments have come from delusion—believing, for example, that the Tooth Fairy would pay me a visit after I lost a tooth. But delusion can also produce bad moments. And I don’t just mean moments that, in retrospect, are obviously delusional, like horrible nightmares. I also mean moments that you might not think of as delusional, such as lying awake at night with anxiety. Or feeling hopeless, even depressed, for days on end. Or feeling bursts of hatred toward people, bursts that may actually feel good for a moment but slowly corrode your character. Or feeling bursts of hatred toward yourself. Or feeling greedy, feeling a compulsion to buy things or eat things or drink things well beyond the point where your well-being is served.

Though these feelings—anxiety, despair, hatred, greed—aren’t delusional the way a nightmare is delusional, if you examine them closely, you’ll see that they have elements of delusion, elements you’d be better off without.

And if you think you would be better off, imagine how the whole world would be. After all, feelings like despair and hatred and greed can foster wars and atrocities. So if what I’m saying is true—if these basic sources of human suffering and human cruelty are indeed in large part the product of delusion—there is value in exposing this delusion to the light.

Sounds logical, right? But here’s a problem that I started to appreciate shortly after I wrote my book about evolutionary psychology: the exact value of exposing a delusion to the light depends on what kind of light you’re talking about. Sometimes understanding the ultimate source of your suffering doesn’t, by itself, help very much.

An Everyday Delusion

Let’s take a simple but fundamental example: eating some junk food, feeling briefly satisfied, and then, only minutes later, feeling a kind of crash and maybe a hunger for more junk food. This is a good example to start with for two reasons.

First, it illustrates how subtle our delusions can be. There’s no point in the course of eating a six-pack of small powdered-sugar doughnuts when you’re believing that you’re the messiah or that foreign agents are conspiring to assassinate you. And that’s true of many sources of delusion that I’ll discuss in this book: they’re more about illusion—about things not being quite what they seem—than about delusion in the more dramatic sense of that word. Still, by the end of the book, I’ll have argued that all of these illusions do add up to a very large-scale warping of reality, a disorientation that is as significant and consequential as out-and-out delusion.

The second reason junk food is a good example to start with is that it’s fundamental to the Buddha’s teachings. Okay, it can’t be literally fundamental to the Buddha’s teachings, because 2,500 years ago, when the Buddha taught, junk food as we know it didn’t exist. What’s fundamental to the Buddha’s teachings is the general dynamic of being powerfully drawn to sensory pleasure that winds up being fleeting at best. One of the Buddha’s main messages was that the pleasures we seek evaporate quickly and leave us thirsting for more. We spend our time looking for the next gratifying thing—the next powdered-sugar doughnut, the next sexual encounter, the next status-enhancing promotion, the next online purchase. But the thrill always fades, and it always leaves us wanting more. The old Rolling Stones lyric I can’t get no satisfaction is, according to Buddhism, the human condition. Indeed, though the Buddha is famous for asserting that life is pervaded by suffering, some scholars say that’s an incomplete rendering of his message and that the word translated as suffering, dukkha, could, for some purposes, be translated as unsatisfactoriness.

So what exactly is the illusory part of pursuing doughnuts or sex or consumer goods or a promotion? There are different illusions associated with different pursuits, but for now we can focus on one illusion that’s common to these things: the overestimation of how much happiness they’ll bring. Again, by itself this is delusional only in a subtle sense. If I asked you whether you thought that getting that next promotion, or getting an A on that next exam, or eating that next powdered-sugar doughnut would bring you eternal bliss, you’d say no, obviously not. On the other hand, we do often pursue such things with, at the very least, an unbalanced view of the future. We spend more time envisioning the perks that a promotion will bring than envisioning the headaches it will bring. And there may be an unspoken sense that once we’ve achieved this long-sought goal, once we’ve reached the summit, we’ll be able to relax, or at least things will be enduringly better. Similarly, when we see that doughnut sitting there, we immediately imagine how good it tastes, not how intensely we’ll want another doughnut only moments after eating it, or how we’ll feel a bit tired or agitated later, when the sugar rush subsides.

Why Pleasure Fades

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to explain why this sort of distortion would be built into human anticipation. It just takes an evolutionary biologist—or, for that matter, anyone willing to spend a little time thinking about how evolution works.

Here’s the basic logic. We were designed by natural selection to do certain things that helped our ancestors get their genes into the next generation—things like eating, having sex, earning the esteem of other people, and outdoing rivals. I put designed in quotation marks because, again, natural selection isn’t a conscious, intelligent designer but an unconscious process. Still, natural selection does create organisms that look as if they’re the product of a conscious designer, a designer who kept fiddling with them to make them effective gene propagators. So, as a kind of thought experiment, it’s legitimate to think of natural selection as a designer and put yourself in its shoes and ask: If you were designing organisms to be good at spreading their genes, how would you get them to pursue the goals that further this cause? In other words, granted that eating, having sex, impressing peers, and besting rivals helped our ancestors spread their genes, how exactly would you design their brains to get them to pursue these goals? I submit that at least three basic principles of design would make sense:

1. Achieving these goals should bring pleasure, since animals, including humans, tend to pursue things that bring pleasure.

2. The pleasure shouldn’t last forever. After all, if the pleasure didn’t subside, we’d never seek it again; our first meal would be our last, because hunger would never return. So too with sex: a single act of intercourse, and then a lifetime of lying there basking in the afterglow. That’s no way to get lots of genes into the next generation!

3. The animal’s brain should focus more on (1), the fact that pleasure will accompany the reaching of a goal, than on (2), the fact that the pleasure will dissipate shortly thereafter. After all, if you focus on (1), you’ll pursue things like food and sex and social status with unalloyed gusto, whereas if you focus on (2), you could start feeling ambivalence. You might, for example, start asking what the point is of so fiercely pursuing pleasure if the pleasure will wear off shortly after you get it and leave you hungering for more. Before you know it, you’ll be full of ennui and wishing you’d majored in philosophy.

If you put these three principles of design together, you get a pretty plausible explanation of the human predicament as diagnosed by the Buddha. Yes, as he said, pleasure is fleeting, and, yes, this leaves us recurrently dissatisfied. And the reason is that pleasure is designed by natural selection to evaporate so that the ensuing dissatisfaction will get us to pursue more pleasure. Natural selection doesn’t want us to be happy, after all; it just wants us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.

Scientists can watch this logic play out at the biochemical level by observing dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is correlated with pleasure and the anticipation of pleasure. In one seminal study, they took monkeys and monitored dopamine-generating neurons as drops of sweet juice fell onto the monkeys’ tongues. Predictably, dopamine was released right after the juice touched the tongue. But then the monkeys were trained to expect drops of juice after a light turned on. As the trials proceeded, more and more of the dopamine came when the light turned on, and less and less came after the juice hit the tongue.

We have no way of knowing for sure what it felt like to be one of those monkeys, but it would seem that, as time passed, there was more in the way of anticipating the pleasure that would come from the sweetness, yet less in the way of pleasure actually coming from the sweetness.I,† To translate this conjecture into everyday human terms:

If you encounter a new kind of pleasure—if, say, you’ve somehow gone your whole life without eating a powdered-sugar doughnut, and somebody hands you one and suggests you try it—you’ll get a big blast of dopamine after the taste of the doughnut sinks in. But later, once you’re a confirmed powdered-sugar-doughnut eater, the lion’s share of the dopamine spike comes before you actually bite into the doughnut, as you’re staring longingly at it; the amount that comes after the bite is much less than the amount you got after that first, blissful bite into a powdered-sugar doughnut. The pre-bite dopamine blast you’re now getting is the promise of more bliss, and the post-bite drop in dopamine is, in a way, the breaking of the promise—or, at least, it’s a kind of biochemical acknowledgment that there was some overpromising. To the extent that you bought the promise—anticipated greater pleasure than would be delivered by the consumption itself—you have been, if not deluded in the strong sense of that term, at least misled.

Kind of cruel, in a way—but what do you expect from natural selection? Its job is to build machines that spread genes, and if that means programming some measure of illusion into the machines, then illusion there will be.

Unhelpful Insights

So this is one kind of light science can shed on an illusion. Call it Darwinian light. By looking at things from the point of view of natural selection, we see why the illusion would be built into us, and we have more reason than ever to see that it is an illusion. But—and this is the main point of this little digression—this kind of light is of limited value if your goal is to actually liberate yourself from the illusion.

Don’t believe me? Try this simple experiment: (1) Reflect on the fact that our lust for doughnuts and other sweet things is a kind of illusion—that the lust implicitly promises more enduring pleasure than will result from succumbing to it, while blinding us to the letdown that may ensue. (2) As you’re reflecting on this fact, hold a powdered-sugar doughnut six inches from your face. Do you feel the lust for it magically weakening? Not if you’re like me, no.

This is what I discovered after immersing myself in evolutionary psychology: knowing the truth about your situation, at least in the form that evolutionary psychology provides it, doesn’t necessarily make your life any better. In fact, it can actually make it worse. You’re still stuck in the natural human cycle of ultimately futile pleasure-seeking—what psychologists sometimes call the hedonic treadmill—but now you have new reason to see the absurdity of it. In other words, now you see that it’s a treadmill, a treadmill specifically designed to keep you running, often without really getting anywhere—yet you keep running!

And powdered-sugar doughnuts are just the tip of the iceberg. I mean, the truth is, it’s not all that uncomfortable to be aware of the Darwinian logic behind your lack of dietary self-discipline. In fact, you may find in this logic a comforting excuse: it’s hard to fight Mother Nature, right? But evolutionary psychology also made me more aware of how illusion shapes other kinds of behavior, such as the way I treat other people and the way I, in various senses, treat myself. In these realms, Darwinian self-consciousness was sometimes very uncomfortable.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a meditation teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, has said, Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them. What he meant is that if you want to liberate yourself from the parts of the mind that keep you from realizing true happiness, you have to first become aware of them, which can be unpleasant.

Okay, fine; that’s a form of painful self-consciousness that would be worthwhile—the kind that leads ultimately to deep happiness. But the kind I got from evolutionary psychology was the worst of both worlds: the painful self-consciousness without the deep happiness. I had both the discomfort of being aware of my mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.

Jesus said, I am the way and the truth and the life. Well, with evolutionary psychology I felt I had found the truth. But, manifestly, I had not found the way. Which was enough to make me wonder about another thing Jesus said: that the truth will set you free. I felt I had seen the basic truth about human nature, and I saw more clearly than ever how various illusions imprisoned me, but this truth wasn’t amounting to a Get Out of Jail Free card.

So is there another version of the truth out there that would set me free? No, I don’t think so. At least, I don’t think there’s an alternative to the truth presented by science; natural selection, like it or not, is the process that created us. But some years after writing The Moral Animal, I did start to wonder if there was a way to operationalize the truth—a way to put the actual, scientific truth about human nature and the human condition into a form that would not just identify and explain the illusions we labor under but would also help us liberate ourselves from them. I started wondering if this Western Buddhism I was hearing about might be that way. Maybe many of the Buddha’s teachings were saying essentially the same thing modern psychological science says. And maybe meditation was in large part a different way of appreciating these truths—and, in addition, a way of actually doing something about them.

So in August 2003 I headed to rural Massachusetts for my first silent meditation retreat—a whole week devoted to meditation and devoid of such distractions as email, news from the outside world, and speaking to other human beings.

The Truth about Mindfulness

You could be excused for doubting that a retreat like this would yield anything very dramatic or profound. The retreat was, broadly speaking, in the tradition of mindfulness meditation, the kind of meditation that was starting to catch on in the West and that in the years since has gone mainstream. As commonly described, mindfulness—the thing mindfulness meditation aims to cultivate—isn’t very deep or exotic. To live mindfully is to pay attention to, to be mindful of what’s happening in the here and now and to experience it in a clear, direct way, unclouded by various mental obfuscations. Stop and smell the roses.

This is an accurate description of mindfulness as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far. Mindfulness, as popularly conceived, is just the beginning of mindfulness.

And it’s in some ways a misleading beginning. If you delve into ancient Buddhist writings, you won’t find a lot of exhortations to stop and smell the roses—and that’s true even if you focus on those writings that feature the word sati, the word that’s translated as mindfulness. Indeed, sometimes these writings seem to carry a very different message. The ancient Buddhist text known as The Four Foundations of Mindfulness—the closest thing there is to a Bible of Mindfulness—reminds us that our bodies are full of various kinds of unclean things and instructs us to meditate on such bodily ingredients as feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine. It also calls for us to imagine our bodies one day, two days, three days dead—bloated, livid, and festering.

I’m not aware of any bestselling books on mindfulness meditation called Stop and Smell the Feces. And I’ve never heard a meditation teacher recommend that I meditate on my bile, phlegm, and pus or on the rotting corpse that I will someday be. What is presented today as an ancient meditative tradition is actually a selective rendering of an ancient meditative tradition, in some cases carefully manicured.

There’s no scandal here. There’s nothing wrong with modern interpreters of Buddhism being selective—even, sometimes, creative—in what they present as Buddhism. All spiritual traditions evolve, adapting to time and place, and the Buddhist teachings that find an audience today in the United States and Europe are a product of such evolution.

The main thing, for our purposes, is that this evolution—the evolution that has produced a distinctively Western, twenty-first-century version of Buddhism—hasn’t severed the connection between current practice and ancient thought. Modern mindfulness meditation isn’t exactly the same as ancient mindfulness meditation, but the two share a common philosophical foundation. If you follow the underlying logic of either of them far enough, you will find a dramatic claim: that we are, metaphorically speaking, living in the Matrix. However mundane mindfulness meditation may sometimes sound, it is a practice that, if pursued rigorously, can let you see what Morpheus says the red pill will let you see. Namely, how deep the rabbit hole goes.

On that first meditation retreat, I had some pretty powerful experiences—powerful enough to make me want to see just how deep the rabbit hole goes. So I read more about Buddhist philosophy, and talked to experts on Buddhism, and eventually went on more meditation retreats, and established a daily meditation practice.

All of this made it clearer to me why The Matrix had come to be known as a dharma movie. Though evolutionary psychology had already convinced me that people are by nature pretty deluded, Buddhism, it turned out, painted an even more dramatic picture. In the Buddhist view, the delusion touches everyday perceptions and thoughts in ways subtler and more pervasive than I had imagined. And in ways that made sense to me. In other words, this kind of delusion, it seemed to me, could be explained as the natural product of a brain that had been engineered by natural selection. The more I looked into Buddhism, the more radical it seemed, but the more I examined it in the light of modern psychology, the more plausible it seemed. The real-life Matrix, the one in which we’re actually embedded, came to seem more like the one in the movie—not quite as mind-bending, maybe, but profoundly deceiving and ultimately oppressive, and something that humanity urgently needs to escape.

The good news is the other thing I came to believe: if you want to escape from the Matrix, Buddhist practice and philosophy offer powerful hope. Buddhism isn’t alone in this promise. There are other spiritual traditions that address the human predicament with insight and wisdom. But Buddhist meditation, along with its underlying philosophy, addresses that predicament in a strikingly direct and comprehensive way. Buddhism offers an explicit diagnosis of the problem and a cure. And the cure, when it works, brings not just happiness but clarity of vision: the actual truth about things, or at least something way, way closer to that than our everyday view of them.

Some people who have taken up meditation in recent years have done so for essentially therapeutic reasons. They practice mindfulness-based stress reduction or focus on some specific personal problem. They may have no idea that the kind of meditation they’re practicing can be a deeply spiritual endeavor and can transform their view of the world. They are, without knowing it, near the threshold of a basic choice, a choice that only they can make. As Morpheus says to Neo, I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it. This book is an attempt to show people the door, give them some idea of what lies beyond it, and explain, from a scientific standpoint, why what lies beyond it has a stronger claim to being real than the world they’re familiar with.

I. This and all subsequent daggers refer to elaborative notes that can be found in the Notes section at the end of the book.


Paradoxes of Meditation

I’m not supposed to tell you about my

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  • (1/5)
    I'm sure for those with an interest, it was a great book (based on the Goodreads ratings). I read about 50 pages and put the book down. I guess I did not have the requisite consciousness or mental bandwidth to reach enlightenment. I zoned out quickly from the book.
  • (4/5)
    Accessible and lively tour of the philosophical issues. Stays secular but with enough personal anecdote to keep things interesting.
  • (5/5)
    Wonderful book that clarifies some important Buddhist doctrine and how it relates to a evopsychological understanding of the mind.
  • (5/5)
    Great book! Must read if interested in relation between Buddhism and science
  • (5/5)
    I study neuroscience and have been reading about buddhism for the last decade. This book connects the physical and mind really well.
  • (5/5)
    My interest in Buddhism dates back a couple of decades before my graduate studies, which included a wide-ranging look at Buddhist imagery in James Joyce. I find much of Robert Wright’s survey in Why Buddhism is True stimulating and endlessly fascinating. Of additional interest is the fact that Wright is also a psychologist.In the “Note to Readers,” he concisely separates several areas of inquiry into five neat packages. He first says, “I’m not talking about the ‘Supernatural’ or more exactly metaphysical parts of Buddhism—reincarnation, for example, but rather the naturalistic parts: ideas that fall squarely within modern psychology and philosophy”; second, “there’s no one Buddhism, but rather various Buddhist traditions, which differ on all kinds of doctrines”; third “I’m not getting into super-fine-grained parts of Buddhist psychology and philosophy;” fourth, “‘true’ is a tricky word;” and fifth and finally, “Asserting the validity of core Buddhist ideas doesn’t necessarily say anything, one way or the other, about spiritual or philosophical traditions” (xi-xii). This two-page note shows this marriage of Buddhism and psychology is precisely the book I have been searching for a long time.I have so many annotations and marginalia it will be difficult to sort out some of the core ideas Wright addresses. Here is a timely example. Robert writes, Technologies of distraction have made attention deficits more common. And there’s something about the modern environment—something technological or cultural, or political or all of the above—that seems conducive to harsh judgment and ready rage. Just look at the tribalism—the discord and even open conflict along religious, ethnic, national, and ideological lines. More and more, it seems groups of people define their identity in terms of sharp opposition to other groups of people” (18). Wright attended a week-long meditation camp to sharpen his core ideas of meditation. He writes, “focusing on your breath isn’t just to focus on your breath. It’s to stabilize your mind, to free it of its normal preoccupations so you can observe things that are happening in a clear, unhurried, less reactive way” (20). By “things that are happening”,” he means feelings inside your mind, such as sadness, anxiety, joy and so forth. Wright talks about feelings extensively. He asks the reader, “Have you ever been visited by the fear that something you said to someone had offended her? And has this person ever been someone you weren’t going to see for a while? And has it been the case that you didn’t know her very well, it would have been awkward to call her or to send an email to make sure you hadn’t offended or to clarify that no offense was meant? That feeling itself […] is perfectly natural” (34). Shortly after reading this chapter, I bumped into an old friend I had not seen for decades. As we talked over coffee, I toyed with the idea of apologizing for an unfortunate remark long ago. I decided to mention the incident, but she had entirely forgotten all about it. She said with a laugh, “We ere kids! It is inconsequential. Forget about it.” The relief I experienced was wonderful. Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True is a marriage of Buddhism and Psychology for an amazing journey into mind, memory, and all the associated joys and sorrows we all experience. 5 stars. --Jim, 1/27/18
  • (5/5)

    1 persona l'ha trovata utile

    What can I say about this book. Wright does an excellent job applying the ethics of Buddhism to every day life. I myself do not define myself with a particular religion. When others who are of a specific religion question my choices I explain "At best, I would identify as a Buddhist" My choice is to live my life as a good person and helping others. It was confusing and then enlightening to hear Wright explain Buddhism using Science with Darwin etc. I recommend this to anyone looking for aide in anything from focus, calming oneself down, to finding a closer connection to God. There is a lot of information in here that I hope to use in my efforts to creating more calm in my life (we all know I need it). :)

    1 persona l'ha trovata utile

  • (4/5)

    1 persona l'ha trovata utile

    An interesting look at the science of evolutionary psychology and how it seems to validate much of what Buddhism has held for the last couple of millennia. While the beginning and end of the book held my interest, much of the middle section was a tough read, mired in difficult to grasp philosophy. If you have a strong interest in philosophy, evolutionary psychology, or Buddhism, these chapters might flow more easily. All in all, a challenging and at times slow paced read, but interesting.

    1 persona l'ha trovata utile

  • (5/5)
    Wright calls on evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, and a little neuroscience to bolster his argument that “some” of what Buddhists teaches about the human condition may be “true.” The operational words here are “some” and “true.” He doesn’t discuss all of Buddhist beliefs, but focuses instead on meditation and mindfulness and how they can be used to more accurately perceive the world.Wright builds his case on the idea that we humans have little control over our feelings. Wright and Buddhism argue that the idea of a CEO of the mind, we think of as our “self,” is an illusion. Instead he cites the psychological proposal that the mind consists of multiple modules that compete for our attention. This model maintains that the most compelling module determines our feelings and emotions at any given moment.Buddhism also holds that the values we assign to things in our world, both positive and negative, are illusions. Wright argues that these “essences” have been hardwired into our minds by natural selection with the primary aim of increasing opportunities to pass our genes along. While some of these values and the feelings they excite bear directly on our safety and wellbeing, many others are just irrelevant to modern humans and contribute to personal and societal dysfunction (e.g. tribalism, rage, jealousy, depression, greed, materialism, etc.). In effect, natural selection has rigged us to be anxious and delusional creatures disposed to overestimating the pleasure and pain that things may provide.Wright maintains that “there is value in exposing this delusion to the light" and meditation provides the ideal method to distance and disengage from these inappropriate feelings. He writes, “According to Buddhist philosophy, both the problems we call therapeutic and the problems we call spiritual are a product of not seeing things clearly. What’s more, in both cases this failure to see things clearly is in part a product of being misled by feelings. And the first step toward seeing through these feelings is seeing them in the first place—becoming aware of how pervasively and subtly feelings influence our thought and behavior.”Wright provides a personal touch to his arguments by writing, often humorously, about his own failings, anxieties, and faults. His narrative is both engaging and lacking in dogma. His use of the movie, “The Matrix,” to illustrate how humanity is enslaved to delusion is particularly apt and easily identifiable. If the book has a failing, it may come from Wright’s attempt to ascribe too much to mindful meditation. Clearly, mankind will not avoid the global catastrophes that face us by everyone magically deciding to begin meditating.
  • (2/5)

    1 persona l'ha trovata utile

    Didn't get a lot out of this book except a very basic intro to Buddhism. The author is overly wordy and most of the book is very repetitive. The author talks over and over that he is "bad" at meditation and has not achieved enlightenment. So why is he qualified to write this book? It seems his experience with Buddhism is limited to a weekend retreat that he probably attended for the sole purpose of this book. Not a great read. Look elsewhere.

    1 persona l'ha trovata utile

  • (5/5)
    What would it be like to have an unfiltered, unfettered experience of the world around us, where we are relaxed and calm and not distracted by our usual worries and concerns? Maybe some readers have experienced that – a sunrise or sunset, a full moon, a sky full of stars, a sky full of rain and lightning – or some other moment of encompassing peace. Could we somehow train ourselves to have that kind of experience more often?There's more to it, of course, but that is a big part of what Robert Wright addresses in the surprise NYTimes bestseller, Why Buddhism is True. "{T}he way it seems to work is some feelings actually get accentuated - first and foremost the sensation of beauty."He has taught this subject at Princeton, and admirably maintains his focus. There are many flavors of Buddhism, as with other religions, and many intriguing aspects worthy of discussion. But he's very Western and pragmatic, and that suited me well. "I don't believe in reincarnation or related notions of karma, and I don't bow to the statue of Buddha before entering the meditation hall."He calls himself a "laboratory rat" with ADD, figuring that, "if I could get much in the way of benefits out of meditation, just about anyone could." He does.I loved his application of Darwinian theory: "Buddhism had been studying how the human mind is programmed to react to its environment, how exactly the 'conditioning' works. Now, with Darwin's theory, we understood what had done the programming." Many of our impulses, designed to help us pass on our genes, don't serve us well today. Our feelings and perceptions often end up leaving us misguided, unhappy and dissatisfied."Both our natural view of the world 'out there' and our natural view of the world 'in here' - the world inside our heads - are deeply misleading." He's convincing in explaining why. Through common sense examples, scientific studies, and his own experience, he explains how Buddhist practices successfully address our delusive way of living. He's not shy about bigger issues - e.g. how continuing tribalism is harming us. "I think the salvation of the world can be secured via the cultivation of calm, clear minds and the wisdom they allow." A big claim, but he's not alone in making it. Although he believes modest improvements via Buddhist practice are the practical goal, he also takes on explaining "nirvana", and does a good job of it.I used to recommend more advanced books like Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind to people wanting a place to start on Buddhist principles - and that didn't work very well. From now on, I'm recommending this one. He has done his homework, but made the concepts accessible for those new to all this.
  • (3/5)

    1 persona l'ha trovata utile

    There was a lot of information to absorb in this book and for people interested in science or evolutionary psychology, there are some fascinating ideas to ponder. However, I had different expectations for this book, based mostly on the title -- Why Buddhism is True. But really this book is about how our minds show us a distorted reality, a necessary feature for survival, and how meditation can unmask the distortion and show us the truth. I really liked the evolutionary biology part of this book. It's so interesting to see how we distort reality and why humans evolved to do this. And although I can see that there is a lot of data these days espousing the benefits of meditation, I don't know I agree that it will solve many of the problems in our world as Wright seems to preach. Also, he discounts some of the religious aspects of Buddhism, so I feel like his title is deceptive. It would be like saying why Judaism is True and then have a book that discusses the validity of one of the ten commandments.The book is accessible and entertaining, but it left me oddly unsettled.

    1 persona l'ha trovata utile

  • (4/5)

    1 persona l'ha trovata utile

    I enjoyed this, but it came across to me as more personal-anecdotey than science/philosophy.

    1 persona l'ha trovata utile

  • (4/5)

    2 persone l'hanno trovata utile

    Like several other reviewers, I found less in this book than is suggested by the title -- but I still found it an interesting and worthwhile book. First off, the "nots". Readers looking for a critical examination of Buddhism, one of the world's great religions, will not find it here. Instead, it examines one type of modern, non-secular Buddhism. Nor will they find a rigorous scientific examination of Buddhism even in that very narrow definition: Wright proposes interesting theories based on natural selections, but doesn't provide much in the way of evidence. So why interesting enough to bother with? Because Wright focuses on meditation as a way of trying to reduce the impact of unproductive patterns of thinking. He traces these patterns to natural selection, in a way which is plausible, if not supported by evidence. As a discussion of why meditation is helpful, I found the book useful. It is also well written and amusing, leaving me interested in reading other works by this author.

    2 persone l'hanno trovata utile

  • (1/5)

    1 persona l'ha trovata utile

    This book is leading people into a mass deception, and if you don’t believe me you will see at the return of the True Messiah, Jesus Christ, where every tongue will confess and every knee will bow that JESUS IS LORD. BE VERY CAREFUL what doctrine you accept, it could ultimately lead to your destruction.

    1 persona l'ha trovata utile

  • (5/5)

    1 persona l'ha trovata utile

    For those like me - who are on the trial-and-error road of mindfulness meditation - this book is excellent. And even for those who are considering it! Even if I haven't yet fully grasped Buddhist concepts of "not-self", "emptiness" and "formlessness" (need to re-read those chapters!), it's not for lack of very patient and detailed interpretation of those ideas by the author (I truly see an experienced professor and lecturer here - he anticipates questions and is ready with an answer in a very engaging way!). It's not a textbook on mindfulness meditation, but rather an exploration of Buddhism where Robert Wright, often at the expense of self-deprecating humor, but always with a lot of research and knowledge to back his insights, goes on to explain Buddhism in (mostly) understandable terms (which is not an easy task, as he seems to be addressing a wide audience of probable, even if eager, novices) and to show how mindfulness meditation is the first step to enlightenment and to life that is much more positive all around. I liked his sober notion that "if complete and utter enlightenment will remain remote for most of us, portions of enlightenment are available" through mindfulness meditation. The idea that natural selection is at the core of our delusions was news to me, but it is so aptly introduced by the author that it makes total sense. And he also points out that mindfulness meditation, "an essentially therapeutic endeavor" can turn into much more than that, can actually change the world by making us face the reality in a calmer fashion. In the end, it's a very inspiring book. (I would be remiss if I didn't mention my gratitude to the author for finally explaining to me the idea behind the movie Matrix! Actually the book starts with it! As well as how he really made me laugh when he said that on the spectrum of all people ranked by their likelihood to easily pick up mindfulness meditation (at one end of which there is Bobby Knight and at the other the Dalai Lama or the late Mr. Rogers) he would be closer to Bobby Knight: he is that humble (!) although clearly he was a seasoned meditator by the time he was writing this book.)

    1 persona l'ha trovata utile

  • (4/5)

    1 persona l'ha trovata utile

    Natural selection's goal is the deliverance of each organism's genes to the next generation. This process was outrageously successful over the millennia. It relied on and enhanced the emergence of reactions (thoughts and feelings) that promoted the end goal: my sense that my needs, perceptions, judgments, and dreams are not only the most important but, somehow, the most valid or "true," is rooted in adaptations that enabled my ancestors to pass their genes along. In the modern context, however, what was once adaptive is no longer very helpful at all. It's not helpful in living a happy life (that is a relatively easy argument to make) but it's also not very helpful in passing my genes along! Exploring the intersection between modern psychological science and ancient Buddhist thought, Wright makes the case for mindful meditation. He illuminates some of the key Buddhist concepts in relatively accessible ways and provides a primer to the experience of meditation. His writing is both humble and humorous but he has also done his research. He uses psychological research to support his claims, using a common sense approach. His explanations sometimes skip a logical step. For example, his claim that his observation of his feelings during meditation - his observation of where in his body the feelings reside and what their texture is - his claim that this observation provides empirical evidence for the shape of feelings and his prediction that body scans in the future will confirm his observations seems a bit of a stretch for me. On the other hand, I have worked with many clients over the years and it's true that their descriptions of what feelings feel like are amazingly consistent. So, whatever. Apart from the occasional lapse into sloppy logic, this book is truly excellent. I learned a lot and I want to try mindfulness meditation. I've long had an interest in it but have resisted giving up 20-50 minutes of each day to the endeavor. What would I give up? Reading? Not a chance. My runs? Nope. Sleep? Already too hard to come by.... So I don't know where this will lead but I definitely recommend the book!

    1 persona l'ha trovata utile

  • (4/5)

    1 persona l'ha trovata utile

    “We build stories on stories on stories, and the problem with the stories begins at their foundation. Mindfulness meditation is, among other things, a tool for examining our stories carefully, from the ground up, so that we can, if we choose, separate truth from fabrication.”“We don't have to love our enemies, but seeing them clearly is essential.”“ would be tragic, to say the least, if, after billions of years of arduous effort on the part of organic life, effort that has gotten us to the verge of a global community of minds, we let the natural distortions in these minds blow the whole thing apart.”I grew up with a Christian background. My parents were not practicing but my paternal grandparents were very religious and I was influenced by them and went to Sunday school for many years. As I have matured and my mind has expanded, as I have read industriously and studied the world, I have gotten further and further away from organized religion and may now, be considered, right of agnostic. Although, I won't say that out loud, due to God guilt, that is still ingrained in my soul.The one religion I do admire, more and more all the time, is Buddhism. It makes sense. It fits. I doubt I'll ever become a Buddhist, but there is no problem with following it's tenets, especially meditation.I tried meditating a couple years ago. I barely got started but did recognize the benefits. After reading this book, I may try to get back into it. I really liked this book and it's approach. Wright is a smart guy and completely grounded and gives the reader much to chew on and dwell over. His narrative style is easy and conversational and his has a good sense of humor, which really helps through some of the dry spots.

    1 persona l'ha trovata utile

  • (3/5)
    I listened to this book as an audiobook and the concepts could be a bit deep to follow it did provide some very good insight into the author's interpretation and practice of Buddhism in his life. Meditation being the core of this practice he lays out how he developed and learned to key into life's essential questions. The answers aren't always crystal clear and probably are not meant to be but for many it can get them closer to true spiritual connection the many of the doctrine religions out there.